ANOTHER TAKE ON THIS..
Los Angeles Times
Expanded soccer academy decision is a win-win
Elite young U.S. players will get more training and more opportunities will be created for high school players.
By Kevin Baxter
March 3, 2012 -- When Marie Ishida, head of the one of the nation's largest governing bodies for high school athletics, first heard that U.S. Soccer was planning to force kids to choose between playing for their school and training to play for their country she protested in what she felt was the most appropriate way possible.
She wrote a letter.
"Well, that didn't settle very well with us," remembers Ishida, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees sports programs at more than 1,500 member schools. "They frankly stopped talking to us."
So it was hardly news when the U.S. Soccer Development Academy followed through on its promise and expanded the academy season three months to 40 weeks overall, from September to June, beginning next fall. What may have been surprising, though, was the fact that Ishida and others like her have apparently made their peace with the plan.
"Our attitude's kind of been 'OK, we lose the elite athletes. But that leaves a spot for somebody else,'" she says.
In fact, U.S. Soccer's decision — once fraught with controversy — benefits both the national program as well as high school and other youth leagues. For the national program, lengthening the calendar for academy players will help close a critical gap the U.S. has long conceded to other nations, where top youth players train for 10 or more months each year.
But because the academy is open to elite players only, the loss to high school and other programs will be fewer than 4,000 U 15-16 and U 17-18 male players nationwide — or less than 1% of the current player pool. So while that's not enough to seriously affect the level of play, it does create 4,000 opportunities for kids who might not have made the cut before.
What started out as a feud has ended in a cease-fire — with both sides rightly claiming victory.
"They said their goal was to win a World Cup and they felt the only way to do that was to identify some of these club programs early," Ishida says. "And frankly CIF — and any state association's goal — is not necessarily to produce World Cup athletes or Division I scholarship recipients.
"Our goal is about participation. And about competition."
Besides, much of the hand-wringing and doomsday scenarios from high school officials overlooked that the academy calendar's growth was not only inevitable, but in many places — such as Southern California, Texas and the Pacific Northwest — it had already taken place.
In fact, 23 of the 78 soccer academy clubs nationwide — including eight spread from Temecula to San Diego — expanded to 40 weeks of training and games more than a year ago. That's about 28 weeks longer than many high school programs — but still far fewer than those in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where high school-aged kids train 1,000 hours a year at the local academy, or in Barcelona, where training runs 16 hours a week for 11 months.
"These kids need more hours in focused, intense training environments with players that [have] similar talent and similar commitment and motivation," says Tony Lepore, director of scouting for U.S. Soccer.
And they simply can't get that in most high schools or colleges, which are frequently judged by the diverse number of sports they offer. While that makes U.S. school programs unique worldwide, it also means athletes are frequently limited in the number of hours they can devote to any one endeavor.
In sports such as soccer, that structure has created a huge "training deficit."
"Soccer is not an American-driven game. [Elsewhere] soccer is all global," says U.S. national team coach Juergen Klinsmann, who grew up in the German club system. "It's 11 months a year. You might get three or four weeks off. That's it. So if a kid goes to college [in the U.S.] and plays a three-month season, he loses eight months compared to all the other kids the same age.
"You're not catching up [to] that anymore. So we have to come in and tell the players, 'This is just reality.'"
If playing high school soccer won't prep you for the World Cup, though, here's another reality: Not every player has the talent, the drive or even the desire to go that far. So the fact that U.S. Soccer has finally stepped forward and offered a structured and competitive alternative for elite athletes doesn't detract from the high school game or grassroots youth programs.
On the contrary, it enhances them by making the sport available to more players than ever before.
"The Academy isn't for everyone," says Don Ebert, the director of coaching for the Irvine-based Strikers FC. "If your dream is to wear the [U.S.] jersey, get paid to play as a professional and represent your country, then this is a different avenue. It's more demanding, it does take 10 months and you do train three times a week, but it's a choice.
"We finally have a vehicle for the first time for families and players to choose what's right for them."